The Red Fern Public Houses in Far Rockaway, Queens, generate all kinds of memories for Queen Arroyo and what it meant to grow up here, few of them good.
“The poverty. The pissy elevators. The pissy staircases. The violence,” she says, her voice trailing off.
All she could ever think about was leaving. And she did for a time. But her mother still lived here. So did friends. The pull of family and community drew her back two years ago, she says, this time with a purpose to help change what drove her away.
“It was homicide after homicide,” Arroyo says. “Yeah, that was it for me. I came out here with indignation. A righteous indignation. I came out here angry.”
Arroyo works with Rock Safe Streets, a violence interrupter program that tries to de-escalate arguments, and stop cycles of retaliation. The organization is based in Far Rockaway, one of city’s historically underserved communities, which has always dealt with challenges that seem to follow such areas. Including gun violence. Like other communities around the country, this New York City neighborhood saw gun violence grow worse during the pandemic, at one point reaching the highest number of shootings the city had seen in a decade.
Programs like Rock Safe Streets, have become a favorite cause of politicians promising a reprieve. They’ve been around for decades, and are currently in the spotlight in cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York looking for ways to curb gun violence. The idea is people like Arroyo have better rapport with their communities than police do.
The question remains: Do these programs work?
For a city like New York, which recently declared a state of “disaster emergency” over rising gun violence, it’s a pressing question. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, before his recent resignation, announced several initiatives to address the situation. One of them is hiring more violence interrupters, like the team Arroyo supervises. One of their jobs is to be present in communities, to listen and, when they catch wind of a dispute, help mediate before it escalates.
Walking through the community she talks cautiously, but proudly, telling NPR that Red Fern went nearly a year, beginning in July 2020, without a reported shooting. She believes the work by her group helped keep shooting there down, though local police could not be reached to provide numbers.
Research on violence interrupters’ overall effectiveness in the communities where they operate shows mixed results. Rock Safe Streets is modelled on The Cure Violence method that was pioneered in the aughts, in Chicago. Early research on this specific method, has found it is promising in decreasing violence in places like New York and Philadelphia. But experts warn, these programs aren’t some magic elixir to fix the problems that feed the violence: lack of economic opportunity, gun control, better housing.
And experts also say, these programs work best when paired with good community relations with law enforcement. But given the current strained relationship between communities of color and the police, many think, that’s currently not possible.
“The community relationship with the police is none really right now. Nobody in the community is going to relate to any cop,” says Eugene Finley, a violence interrupter with Rock Safe Streets.
He’s better known as Floss around here, and he says, he can do the work police simply cannot right now. It’s a credibility issue. He says, an outsider cannot intervene in a fight as swiftly and effectively as him.
“I grew up here. I know the people who are doing this,” Floss says. “I can get this close to a person who is about to shoot somebody, before they shoot somebody.”
One of his tasks is to stop a shooting incident from escalating into a cycle of revenge. Floss himself spent 17 years in jail. That life experience means he can go freely where law enforcement can’t, or won’t.
“There’s not one day I been in this job that I worry,” he says. “I’m used to it. I grew up in this.”
It’s important because he says he has noticed law enforcement appears to be increasingly afraid of his community, and he questions how they can protect something they fear.
Over at Highland Park, in Queens, Natasha Christopher says she is afraid. Constantly.
“You know I haven’t had a good night sleep in nine years, since my son died,” she says.
When he was 14, her son, Akeal, was shot not far from here. His homicide was never solved. Christopher now works with a violence interruption program called The God Squad. She’s kind of the last stop. When there’s a deadly shooting, she’s the family outreach specialist. And she co-hosts a support group.
“This is a club that nobody wants to belong to,” Christopher says. “This is not a club that I wanted to belong to.”
Christopher echoes what research has found so far. Violence interruption programs can work. They have to be properly funded. And, better police-community relations are key to curbing violence. According to one recent review from John Jay College Of Criminal Justice: “The judicial process must be viewed as legitimate for community members to engage effectively with law enforcement in reducing violence … community safety is supported when justice systems operate with transparency, openness, consistency, and trust, and when police departments are willing to address complaints from the community.”
But most of all, as she raises her two remaining sons, she feels a sense of urgency. “I not only fear about my sons being shot by someone who looks just like them, I have to also worry about them being killed by the police.”
On days when it feels like too much, Christopher comes to this park to relax. She watches the kids play. She likes to watch the planes from the nearby airport
“When I see the planes I’m always wondering like, is these planes going to some beautiful tropical island? That’s all I be thinking. A nice tropical island. I would give anything to go to a nice tropical island right now. ”
But she says as he died, she promised her son, Akeal, she’d find out what happened to him that night. Plus, she has people, moms, to help here.
So she knows, she might never go.
That’s the thing about the violence. Once it touches you, it is just so hard to leave it behind.